I’ve recently commented on a study that says the happiness generated by video games is destroying the motivations of a large group of the younger 20 something male population from entering the workforce. My argument was that they are just pressing pause longer than usual, but they will eventually be motivated and/or forced to take up their traditional roles within society as soon as things align for them. The study and its resulting article wasn’t just sensationalism for clicks and ad impressions. The work did a good job at exposing a real behavioral trend. We cannot forget that there are micro trends and macro trends and as the old saying goes, you never want to miss the forest for the trees. I think that study is just looking at one little bit of a macro trend in the modern world: The trend is the extension of youth.
This concept isn’t new and has been discussed but I’ve come to the same conclusion independently a long time ago while observing both my generation and those that are coming after me. My theory is that youth is extending in both directions. Children are entering into youth earlier and exiting later. First let’s define youth. I’m not discussing childhood, but semi-mature youth. Youth, as I defined it all those years ago, is that period of time from sexual maturity and its resulting impact on socialization (no more toys, now it’s all about the girls or boys) until the settling down period with some sort of family structure and a regular job that impacts the greater economy. To be more descriptive: How many 20 somethings do you know who are ‘hooking up’, ‘shacking up’ or otherwise living it up, but not really settling down? These are the people who aren’t getting into serious relationships or married until they are in their 30’s or even later. So youth is extended into what traditionally was a period of early maturity and adulthood. Then there is the other side of it. We are pummeled by sexual imagery and the complex chemistry of our environment which has created a scientifically observed growing onset of early puberty. When you add together the earlier entrance into youth and the extended time to exit from it, you get the extension of youth.
Although I knew youth was extending, I never really quite thought about the role of the economy and business in it, at least not until I wrote my commentary on the gaming and happiness study. So what was the model of youth and work? Well going back to my parents the model sort of looked something like this: You went to school, if you were from a fortunate family you continued past high school into college. If you weren’t of a fortunate family you were expected to help out by getting a job. In both cases you would get a job rather quickly after your prescribed and expected education level and that was also about the time you would ‘settle down’. Marriage happened during or after college and kids happened shortly after that. Voala, the next generation takes it’s place in society and the workforce.
Does that still happen today? Yes, it does but like every cultural shift, what was once considered the outliers are becoming the new normal. As I alluded to earlier, today socially the trend goes something like this: Go to school, hook up, shack up, break up. Rinse, repeat. Couples will cohabitate and enter and exit relationships until their 30’s which has become the new ‘age’ of settling down. Although we live in an age of ‘partners’ or spouses, there is usually still the desire on the part of young women to get married. In my experience this becomes culturally actionable as the physical realities of the end of the childbearing years becomes harder and harder to ignore. I could go on and on about the cultural shift, but my work generally is about business. And when I say business, I don’t mean to focus on how the marketing power of a 55 billion per year wedding industry tries to reinforce the social enculturation of a virtually ageless institution. When you consider that combination it’s not a wonder why marriage is still aspirational. What I mean is how the macro trends of business and life are influencing and/or dovetailing with the extension of youth.
Student Loan debt is crushing. If you look at the modern university systems as a business, they have become exceptionally good at driving growth in revenue. This is mostly done via student loan debt, a problem that’s massive and growing and is exceptionally well documented. Hey, if I could just get my customers to sign a piece of paper and I could get the revenue I want, wouldn’t that become a major focus of my organization? I won’t go into the reasons, but the one major outcome is that when it comes to exiting any form of education and entering the workforce, the newly minted workers do not see the promised ROI. This is all federal money that can’t be bankrupted. Yes, there are lots of ways to hold off, but for the most part the pressure is on for the student to get to work. So they take what they can get, and when that happens the debt service consumes a huge part of their income. What’s left over for the other things in life, like a house and or nice car? Technically it’s possible, but remember the students are battling with expectations… more on that in a bit.
Adoption of Automation
When was the last time you called anything other than a small business and heard “Hello, thank you for calling XYZ corporation, how may I help you?” Automation continues to increase and the phone system is just the easiest target. I can’t begin to tell you how many companies I walk into where their is an empty desk by the front door that just has a phone on it and a printout of extensions. God help you if your cold calling, because no matter who you call on the list, you’ll get a ‘please just leave your literature on the table’ and you know it’s destined for the trash can. At least when there was a human being, even a receptionist, you had the opportunity to give the elevator pitch and possibly make a connection to the organization’s pain point if you got lucky.
Automation first killed the low skilled, low pay jobs. Now, when you consider the drive towards algorithmic management, how many more opportunities for the ‘young buck’ professional exist when even middle management is getting automated? Bottom line the adoption of automation has eliminated or slowed the growth of those initial entry points for the young professional.
Wall street expects quarterly numbers that grow. There is limited tolerance for employers to have ‘oversized’ workforces. When the quarterly numbers don’t pan out, then there is sure to be a layoff. If the expectation for organizations is to be as lean as possible, then where do you have the ability to bring on the next generation and train them to be experts in the specific nuances of that industries particular expertise level? This isn’t easy to do in an age where there is unmitigated world wide competition.
So if there is limited largesse for developing the workforce then the expectation of senior management is to start with a purple squirrel, after all they have to ‘hit the ground running’, right? Employers don’t want to sit around and groom someone to meet their needs, they just want to buy it. That means we get closer and closer to the haves and have nots. If you are the purple squirrel you can command more money, if not, well let’s start you at the lowest level of compensation they can possibly pay you. If, by default of your education and experience as a new entrant into the workforce you don’t meet the needs of the company then what are the odds the company is going to recruit you and train you up over a few years?
It’s not all employers here, the workforce has an expectation, an entitlement really. They have been promised good jobs with a college degree. A college degree that, as I said earlier is obscenely expensive and becoming more and more useless.
There is also an expectation that the new workforce will quickly achieve the quality of life of that of their parents achieved throughout their career. The last time I read the statistics, the timeframe was somewhere in the first 7 years of a career the young worker tries to live like their parents. This is where the credit monster rears it’s head. Hey jr, got a good job? Your boss says you should get a decent car. Want those beautiful Ugg’s? Just put it on the store card and get 10% off. You moved out and need to furnish your new apartment? No interest or payments until next year!
The challenge here is that not only is Jr. wrongheaded in expecting to live like their parents, they get trapped by systems designed to drive profit in every conceivable way. Just look at the car example. Vehicles are designed around appealing to a specific population and marketed heavily to that population. The Scion and Saturn brands were definitely focused on first time car buyers. Remember the “her first new car” commercial. Is there anyone in their 20’s who saw that commercial and didn’t want to be like Julie? Then there is easy credit, on top of easy credit there are service plans and extended warranties with gobs of profit built in.
Distractions are proliferating. This is where the article about happiness of gamers comes in. Think about this for a moment. When the middle part of the workforce, the 40 somethings were young, they had an array of a few dozen channels of television to choose from. If they didn’t like TV, then there was a selection of books from the library with dozens of options in their favorite genre’s, and maybe ten or twenty radio stations. We had two things happen over the last couple of decades. The first was the the desire of every business to get into every other business. This is driven by wall street’s ever insatiable desire for growth. Let’s connect this to gaming, why would Microsoft a business productivity company get into the video game console business? Answer: They were paranoid of Sony’s ever growing move into software and services so Microsoft lost billions but created one hell of a ubiquitous platform for distracting us from life. It’s not just the boys and girls from Bellevue. We have three video game platforms, well more than three if you count PC and tablets/smart phones, etc.. Yes, the smart phones are generally targeted at casual games, but their are some that are very addicting. This is on top of the enhancements made with more traditional forms of media, how many hundreds of channels of regular TV are there in any triple play package? The bigger story is not the expansion of cable, but the disruptors in the video industry. You can get lost for years by binge watching shows in Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube let alone the alternatives like Amazon Prime, Twitch and the pirate video site dujour. I’ve watched my teenager do it. She would watch every season of a show for days on end and then move on to the next one. My daughter and her peer group always knows where to get what they want to watch no matter where it was located, i.e. legal or not. The point is this content designed to pull you in and keep you there. There is so much of it it’s incomprehensible to think about.
In the end it’s not a single thing that is keeping the next generation stalled at the ‘youth’ phase. It’s all of these things and others put together that are creating a culture of extended youth. The institutions created at the dawn of the industrial age that traditionally facilitated the transition from childhood to adult are shorting out or being eliminated all together. In their place are distractions in every conceivable way. I’m fortunate, i’m deep in my career now and I don’t personally have to worry about this for myself but I have to admit I feel for my youth aged daughter and every other kid from her generation. They don’t have many options and the ones they do have aren’t very good. Is it any wonder they play video games or binge watch shows while being a part time employee for pocket change?
If i’m right, then this situation will take care of itself, it’ll just take time. The delay will come with a cost though. The next generation will have children to care for late into life and won’t have the liberty of accruing a good post-career retirement savings and will surely have less options than what is actually needed. When I consider what’s going on it’s like we have an entire generation that is experiencing their retirement before they ever enter the workforce. In fifty years the pre-career down time this generation is experiencing in their 20’s and 30’s may result in a culture of traditional retirement haves and have-not’s, but mostly the later. I hope those that are all experiencing their down time in life now are enjoying it because I seriously doubt they will get another opportunity. For this generation the golden years are the years they still have to go out and earn some more of that gold.